Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone
Alleged Collusion Among Agents and Home Inspectors

Alleged Collusion Among Agents and Home Inspectors

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  As an expert witness in construction defect lawsuits, I see many cases involving home inspectors who fail to disclose defects or who minimize the findings in their reports. In most cases, these inspectors are members of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) or similar associations. One inspector confided that too many problems in his report might “kill” a sale and the agent would no longer recommend him to buyers. Another inspector said he was expected to “work with the agents;” not to raise red flags or be too “nit-picky.” This is disturbing because home inspector referrals come mainly from agents. It also indicates that inspector organizations are not policing the industry very well. Perhaps ASHI or their insurance carriers could maintain a database of court rulings against inspectors and agents. The industry needs to do its job before the government steps in.  Ray

Dear Ben:  Your position as an expert witness exposes you to the worst examples of home inspectors and real estate agents. Without doubt, there are ethical disparities and conflicts of interest among some agents and home inspectors, and it is these unprincipled relationships that engender so many of the courtroom dramas in which you testify. But fortunately, there is a brighter side to the world of real estate and home inspection; one whose characters rarely stand in the shadow of a judge’s bench. So let’s examine the darker and lighter sides of disclosure practices, beginning with those professionals who recommend home inspectors to their clients.

Basically, there are two kinds of real estate agents: Advocates and Hucksters. Advocates are the honorable standard bearers of an often unfairly maligned profession. Advocates are those who truly represent the very best interests of their clients; who actively promote the defect disclosure process, and who recommend only the most qualified home inspectors. Advocates would rather kill a sale and find a better property for their client than to have the client be unhappy after the sale. Advocates know that doing the right thing attracts future business.

Unfortunately, there are also the huckster agents, those who keep attorneys busily employed, who denigrate the hard-earned reputations of the honorable advocates, and who boycott the most qualified home inspectors. Hucksters represent their own financial avarice at the expense of their clients. They compromise the disclosure process by seeking those inspectors who are less likely to provide full defect disclosure. They recommend inspectors who are less experienced, less capable, or who are willing to exchange principal for increased business. A huckster would rather close the sale than jeopardize the immediate flow of commission checks. To a huckster, top-notch home inspectors are known as “Deal Killers.”

Among home inspectors there are also two basic varieties: experienced practitioners and developing practitioners. But even within these divisions, we find the same ethical contrasts that define agents: either a total commitment to the client’s interests or a general disregard for same. Adversely affecting this situation is the reliance of most home inspectors upon agent referrals for the majority of their business. Agents understand this, and some have learned to exert subtle pressure. Nothing overt; just a simple hint such as, “We just want to know that everything is structurally sound, so please don’t be nit-picky.” Another favorite is, “This deal is important; so we need a really good report.” Inspectors who do not accede to these coded messages, who are fully committed to the buyers’ interests, needn’t expect future referrals from those agents. The choice then is well defined: either become a “street walker” for unscrupulous agents, or rely strictly upon the referrals of advocates.

As to the consumer advocacy of ASHI and similar organizations, professional integrity among member inspectors can be influenced and encouraged, but it cannot be forced. Honesty can only derive from a willingness to be honest. A database of inspectors and agents who have been successfully sued could be published, but would this truly be a reliable determinant? We live in the age of frivolous lawsuits, a surreal business world in which McDonalds must serve tepid coffee, lest we victims burn our litigious laps. If the seller of a home fails to disclose a defect that was unknown to the agent and concealed from the home inspector, the attorneys still name the agent and the inspector as defendants in the suit.  And sometimes the juries rule against them, regardless of innocence of guilt.

In an imperfect world, “buyer beware” remains the essential caveat for those who purchase a home. The best way a buyer can beware is to find an “Advocate” for an agent and a home inspector with a reputation for thorough, accurate, unbiased inspections.

A Chip Off The Old Tub

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:   I purchased my house about a year ago. At the time, the bathtub seemed to be OK, but now it is apparent that it was painted to cover rust. I also found plumbing problems under the sinks, but none of these issues was reported by my home inspector. What can I do about this?  Dawn

Dear Dawn:  The parties who are potentially liable are the sellers and your home inspector. Sellers are required to disclose all known defects. However, the sellers in your case may not have thought the painted tub was a defect. It might have seemed to them that this was a former defect, having been repaired with paint. Unfortunately, paint is not a permanent repair for the damaged finish on a bathtub. In most cases, chipping or peeling eventually occurs.

Home inspector liability depends on whether the problems were visible at the time of the inspection. The paint on the tub may not have been obvious at the time of the inspection.

As for the plumbing problems, seller liability depends upon whether the previous owners were aware of those issues and whether the problems even existed prior to the sale. Home inspector liability depends on whether the problems were visible and accessible at the time of the inspection. If the problems involve leakage, that may or may not have been occurring at the time. If there are installation defects, they may have been obscured by storage under the sinks, as is often the case during home inspections.

You should contact your home inspector and request a second look at these problems.

Home Inspector Goes To Small Claims Court

Home Inspector Goes To Small Claims Court

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I’ve been a home inspector for about two years, so I’m still learning. Unfortunately, I just learned a very hard lesson after doing a free walk-through inspection as a favor for a real estate agent who was buying a high-rise condo. Eight months later, he is suing me because he found fogging between the panes of a large dual-pane window. The controversial window is on the 15th floor, and the cost to replace it is $2,500. The agent had the window replaced before notifying me of the problem, and now he expects me to pay for it. We’re scheduled for small claims court next month, and I’d like some advice in presenting my side of the story to the judge.  Tim

Dear Tim:  Welcome to the enervating world of home inspection and real estate disclosure. Good deeds, as they say, may not go unpunished.

As this is not a legal advice column, I can only counsel you as a layman and a home inspector. Additional advice from an attorney is strongly advised before representing your side of the story in court.

Since you did the inspection as a favor, you probably do not have a signed contract to specify the scope of the inspection or the limits of liability. Nevertheless, here are some effective points that can make a positive difference when presenting your case to the judge:

1)    This was not a paid home inspection but merely a casual walk through, performed as a personal favor, and therefore is not subject to the same standards as a full home inspection.

2)    You inspected the windows, and no evidence of a faulty dual-pane seal was apparent at that time.

3)    The agent also did not see the window defect prior to purchasing the property, indicating that the defect was not apparent or was nonexistent at that time.

4)    The agent is alleging that the window defect pre-existed the purchase of the property, but there is no way for him to prove that such was the case.

5)    It is common knowledge in the home inspection business that fogging between window panes is not always visible, depending upon variations in lighting and temperature.

6)    The eight-month time lapse between purchase of the property and discovery of the window defect indicates that the window seal may have failed after the property was purchased.

7)    You were never given an opportunity to re-inspect the failed window prior to its being replaced. It is common knowledge among real estate agents that home inspectors should be called to re-inspect a defect prior to making repairs.

8)    If the agent appears in court without an expert witness who is a professional home inspector, be sure to point out to the judge that the plaintiff has no expert witness who is qualified to testify regarding the standard of care for a home inspection.

Be sure to practice your presentation of these points, use notes in court so you won’t leave anything out, and spend an hour with an attorney for additional advice on presenting your case.

Home Inspector Didn’t Report Wood Rot

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:We purchased our home about six months ago, and the home inspector said nothing about wood rot. I recently discovered rotted eave boards when I was repainting the exterior. Shouldn’t this have been reported by our home inspector?  John

Dear John:  Wood rot is caused by fungus. In most states, inspection for wood destroying organisms such as fungus is not within the scope of a home inspection. Damage of this kind is typically covered by a licensed pest control operator, commonly known as a termite inspector. You should check your records to see if there was a pest report when you purchased the property. If so, call that company and ask them to re-inspect the eaves around your home.

Who Should Pay For Home Inspector’s Damage

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I am a Realtor and am having a problem with damage done during a home inspection. The property is one of my listings, so I represent the seller. The inspector was testing the Jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom and forgot to turn it off. The water level was too low because of a leak, and this caused the pump motor to burn out. The seller said the Jacuzzi was working before the inspection, but now it is inoperative, and the motor needs to be replaced. The buyer and inspector were the only ones home during the inspection. Who is responsible for the cost of repair?  Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth: There are two answers to this question. The real estate purchase contract probably holds the buyer responsible for any damage that occurs during inspections authorized by the buyer. This, however, does not relieve the home inspector from liability on the basis of professional ethics. The buyer, therefore, is liable to the seller, but the home inspector is liable to the buyer.

In the course of a career, most home inspectors will have caused and paid for some kind of property damage. One inspector told me that he tipped over and broke a flower pot that turned out to be an expensive piece of ceramic. Another inspector said that he was filling the bathtub to test the whirlpool pump. At that moment, the buyer asked, “Could you please take a look at something in the garage?” By the time the inspector remembered the bathtub test, two rooms had been flooded. A third home inspector admitted that he forgot to turn off the oven before leaving the property. When the buyers returned from vacation five days later, the house was a virtual sauna, the decorative candles on the fireplace mantle had melted, and the gas bill for that month was as large as a car payment.

In each case, the inspector accepted professional responsibility and paid for the damages. The first inspector paid for the flower pot. The second hired a casualty repair company to dry the carpets and replace the damaged drywall. The third inspector paid for the gas bill and replacement of damaged personal property.

Everyone makes mistakes, and one quality of a true professional is to accept the consequences when mistakes happen, which brings us back to the burned out Jacuzzi motor at your listing.

When a home inspector tests a Jacuzzi, he should watch the system while it is operating to check for leaks and other functional or safety-related problems. When he is through with that part of the inspection, the pump should be turned off, and the tub should be drained. If the pump in this case was left on long enough to burn out, the home inspector probably walked away, not realizing that it had been left on. If that is the case, then he is liable for momentary negligence and should pay for the repair. That is what a professional inspector with a sense of integrity would do. To do otherwise would damage his reputation and cost him future referrals from the buyer’s agent and from other agents who learn of the incident.